The Situation In Tibet

A brief introduction to some of the issues in Tibet

“Traditional Tibetan society was, by no means, perfect and was in need of changes. The Dalai Lama and other Tibetan leaders have admitted as much. That is the reason why the Dalai Lama initiated far-reaching reforms in Tibet as soon as he assumed temporal authority. The traditional Tibetan society, however, was not nearly as bad as China would have us believe.” (The Tibetan Government-In-Exile)

Tibet has existed for well over one thousand years, since the reign of emperor Songsten Gampo in the 7th century. Since the 8th century Tibetan Buddhism, which draws on the pre-Buddhist “Bon” religion, has been the primary religion of the country. The reign of the Dalai Lamas and the “Gelug” order began in the 17th century under the 5th Dalai Lama, previously there were various political situations including a period of domination by the Mongols under which another school of Tibetan Buddhism, the Sakya, had a great deal of political power. The Tibetans are a homogeneous ethnic and cultural group, having far more common history than the people of most modern nations.

We cannot say that Tibet was such a perfect place under the rule of the Dalai Lamas. It was basically a theocratic feudal society, superstitious perhaps, certainly steeped in magic and ritual. Cruel punishments were meted out to criminals and political opponents. The Lamas held a great deal of power and the different sects of Tibetan Buddhism went to war with each-other on occasion. There was a feudal aristocracy, with all of the problems that entails, and a great deal of poverty.

Yet despite most people not being wealthy, few went hungry. During China’s “Great Leap Forward” Tibet was faced for the first time with a severe famine, to which the tenth Panchen Lama, later imprisoned by the Chinese, reacted: "There was never such an event in the history of Tibet. People could not even imagine such horrible starvation in their dreams. In some areas if one person catches a cold, then it spreads to hundreds and large numbers simply die".

All of this, however, was in another age, before modern technology arrived and modern ideas were widely disseminated. These circumstances would likely have changed the situation as they have in many other countries. Chinese claims that they are responsible for improving the economic condition of Tibet are a clear case of “post hoc ergo propter hoc”.

It is difficult to imagine any occupation worse than the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Many forms of peaceful protest are met with violence, organisers and activists are tortured (common practise in the Chinese judicial system). Lengthy sentences of imprisonment are handed out to those committing such crimes as possessing a Tibetan flag or an image of the Dalai Lama. Vast numbers of Tibetans, estimated between 400,000 and 1.2 million, have been killed since the beginning of Chinese rule (the figure is probably closer to the higher estimate). The majority of monasteries have been demolished, a vast amount of cultural patrimony has been destroyed. Tibetan children are indoctrinated with communism in an attempt to make them abandon their traditions, and banned from taking part in religious ceremonies.

Tibet, for China, is an experiment in repression. People are under constant surveillance with the “grid system”, police stations placed closely together to monitor the people with an all-pervasive security presence. Tibetans are persuaded to spy on each other, reporting the activities of their neighbours to the security bureau. Tibetans are forced to remain in their home regions, not being permitted to buy food outside of them. Permits to travel within Tibet, while easily available for the Han Chinese, are very complicated to procure for ethnic Tibetans. Getting a passport can take up to seven years and the vast majority of applications are rejected.

In general severe human rights abuses of all kinds are rife, far too many to even begin to list. Freedom of expression, as in all of China, simply doesn’t exist, and those who question the regime often “disappear”, their families receiving no news of what has happened to them. It is said that “today, it is difficult to come across a Tibetan family that has not had at least one member imprisoned or killed by the Chinese regime”.

On the Chinese side, apart from falsely stating that Tibet has been part of China for 800 years, a claim which doesn’t withstand the slightest historical scrutiny, they also make the claim that they “liberated” Tibet from the oppressive rule of the Lamas. This seems quite different from the reality that the people of Tibet resisted the Chinese occupation, their resistance being met with brutal repression, 87,000 being killed. Sources report that when the rebellion was suppressed: “The soldiers told the family members and relatives of the dead people that they should celebrate since the rebels had been wiped out. They were even forced to dance on the dead bodies. Soon after, they were also massacred with machine guns”.

If that isn’t enough to illustrate the reality of China’s “liberation” of Tibet, at present it has become even more difficult to believe that this was the real motivation. The present Dalai Lama has set up democracy in the Tibetan Government-In-Exile (the CTA) and renounced his political authority. He even states that he is not in favour of full independence, only real autonomy for Tibet. The Chinese still won’t even negotiate with him.

This is because the real motivations behind the Chinese “liberation” of Tibet are more material than ideological, nothing to do with “freeing” the people. Not only does Tibet have enormous mineral and metal deposits, it also has the largest reserves of fresh water after the two poles. Many of the rivers necessary for the survival of nations like India have their sources on the Tibetan plateau. Thus China can effectively “switch off the tap”, a huge strategic advantage against it’s regional rivals or potential enemies.

It is a sign of how much suffering the Tibetans are in, that protests of self-immolation (“desperate acts” the Dalai Lama calls them) have become common, despite China punishing the families of self-immolators. Though there was violent resistance at the beginning of the occupation, since that time the Tibetan struggle has been non-violent in accordance with the fundamental principles of Buddhism (unlike many other national liberation movements). Unfortunately no major powers are willing to take a serious stand against China, and without their support the Tibetan Government-In-Exile has little power to change the situation.

It is unfortunate that in these times, when colonialism is said to have ended, that various peoples in the world still rest under the yoke of occupiers, of oppressors. It is ironic that Mao spoke out against “the evil system of colonialism and imperialism”, while the occupation of by Tibet by the Communists of China is among the most brutal, perhaps even the most brutal, example of colonialism in the present time. Though the Dalai Lama is surely not perfect, we can all appreciate his idealism, his belief that a better world truly is possible:

“Demilitarization will free great human resources for protection of the environment, relief of poverty, and sustainable human development. It is my hope that the United Nations can soon help make this a reality.

I have always envisioned the future of my own country, Tibet, to be founded on this basis. Tibet would be a neutral, demilitarized sanctuary where weapons are forbidden and the people live in harmony with nature.” (Tenzin Gyatso, The 14th Dalai Lama)


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